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Statute Authorizing Imposition Of Court Costs Is Constitutional

Posted on Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The defendant did not demonstrate that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) – the statute allowing trial courts to impose court costs in criminal cases – is unconstitutional on due process or separation of powers grounds, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

In People v Brown (Docket No. 346573), the defendant was convicted in Oakland County Circuit Court of stealing, removing, retaining or secreting another’s financial transaction device without consent and was sentenced to nine months of jail time and two years’ probation. Thereafter, the defendant challenged the imposition of $500 in court costs, among other things. She argued the court costs constituted an unconstitutional tax. The Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s convictions and sentences.

The defendant appealed the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court (Docket No. 161531). In a December 2020 order, the justices vacated “that part of the judgment of the Court of Appeals addressing the trial court’s assessment of court costs pursuant to MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii).” The high court remanded the case and instructed the Court of Appeals to hold Brown in abeyance “pending its decision in People v Lewis (Court of Appeals Docket No. 350287).”

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Lewis in May 2021. The Lewis panel rejected the argument that the imposition of court costs incentivizes trial court judges to convict defendants in order to impose court costs, which, in turn, fund the trial courts.

Pursuant to the Michigan Supreme Court’s instructions, the Court of Appeals then reconsidered its ruling in Brown, finding the defendant’s arguments were basically identical to those in Lewis. Therefore, the panel adopted the Lewis analysis as its own and held the defendant failed to demonstrate that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) was unconstitutional on due process or separation of powers grounds.

Judges Michael J. Kelly and Stephen L. Borrello were on the panel that issued the unpublished decision. Judge Karen Fort Hood did not participate.

Lewis Decision

In its analysis, the Brown panel first examined the ruling in Lewis.

The Lewis panel determined the defendant in that case was making a facial challenge to the constitutionality of MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) because the defendant alleged that “no judge can be presumed to be impartial” and did not assert the trial court judge in that case was not impartial. Therefore, the defendant was required to “establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the [statute] would be valid and [t]he fact that the … [statute] might operate unconstitutionally under some conceivable set of circumstances is insufficient to render it invalid.”

In addition, the Lewis panel recognized that the issues before it had already been addressed and decided in People v Johnson (published opinion, Docket No. 351308). In Johnson, the defendant raised a facial challenge to MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii), claiming that it deprived criminal defendants “of their due-process right to an impartial decisionmaker and violates separation-of-powers principles.” The Court of Appeals rejected the arguments and found that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) is not facially unconstitutional.

Next, the Lewis panel addressed the due process argument that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) unconstitutionally created pressure for trial court judges to convict defendants and impose costs against them. “Similar to the defendant in Johnson, in this case, defendant has failed to show ‘that the nexus between the courts and the costs they impose’ under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) undermines a defendant’s due-process right to appear before a neutral judge.”

The Lewis panel continued its analysis by noting there were additional reasons why the defendant in the case had not shown that he was entitled to relief, including that the legislative process was the proper forum in which to pursue changes to the court-funding system.

The Lewis panel also rejected the argument that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) was unconstitutional because it violated separation of powers by preventing trial court judges from remaining neutral and impartial because the argument had been rejected in Johnson. The Lewis panel ruled the statute did not create “a situation where there exists no set of circumstances under which a judge in this state is impartial” and that the statute also did not create “financial interest in the judiciary to cause them to ignore their constitutional mandates.”

Constitutional Costs

Turning to the present case, the Court of Appeals noted its task was to address the assessment of court costs under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) in light of the Lewis decision.

“Like the defendant in Lewis, defendant in this case raised a challenge to the constitutionality of MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) on due-process and separation-of-powers grounds in her application for leave to appeal filed in the Supreme Court,” the Court of Appeals said. “Defendant did not make any specific allegations of impartiality with respect to the trial judge in her case but instead directed her arguments at the statute’s effect on all Michigan judges. Thus, defendant has asserted a facial challenge, as did the defendant in Lewis.”

The Court of Appeals pointed out the defendant’s arguments in the present case were “essentially identical” to those made by the defendant in Lewis.

“Accordingly, we adopt the analysis in Lewis as our own for purposes of this case,” the Court of Appeals held. “Defendant has failed to demonstrate that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii) [is unconstitutional] on due-process or separation-of-powers grounds.”

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